Grand Ideals Plus Self-Interest Spawned US Political Traditions

FOR the past several decades, there have been two rival interpretations of the United States' founding epic. One centers on the Constitution: It imagines the framers as children of the Enlightenment, architects of a ``golden age'' of participatory government.

Against this luminous construction, scholars like Richard Hofstadter launched their revisionist interpretation, which pictured the Founders as oligarchs and slave-holders jealously guarding their economic prerogatives. The notion that the men who conceived the United States were elitists, obsessed with their own economic and social status, is at variance with the version that holds them up as paragons of what they themselves would have called ``civic virtue.''

Among the many wonders of ``The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800,'' Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick's panoramic record of the emergence of modern politics in the US, is how these noted historians reconcile such contradictory accounts of America's national origin. By treating the messy business of politics as equal to the high-toned struggles over constitutional philosophy, the authors allow readers to see how grand ideals cohabited with narrow self-interest in the minds of the Founders. One finishes this book with the sense that the men who created the American political order were both larger than life and tragically flawed, sometimes far-sighted geniuses and sometimes blundering fools.

All the significant figures of the post-revolutionary years - Washington, Madison, Adams, Burr - are here. Also present are less well-known but influential figures like the Federalist renegade Jedidiah Peck, who became a hero of the dissident movement that swept the country in the 1790s, and Charles Cotesworth Pickney, the Revolutionary War veteran who could have been president but preferred being a Southern gentleman.

At the heart of the narrative are Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, whose clashing visions of the proper political order were nearly overshadowed by what the authors call a ``colossal enmity.'' Hamilton and Jefferson squandered huge amounts of energy detesting each other. Never since in US history have two such talents fought so bitterly over the levers of power. Each denounced and connived against the other until the governments of Europe strained forward to watch like spectators at a title fight. Elkins and McKitrick's focus on the conflict of these remarkable men helps keep this learned book from falling into the monotony of mere recitation.

Hamilton, perhaps the most dynamic of the Founders, might have won the struggle if his values had been less absolute. As this volume's title proclaims, the opening years of the Republic were dominated by the Federalists, whose political theories were articulated in the pamphlets named after their movement. The Federalist Papers, which gave justification to the new Constitution and the government it spawned, turned out to be the zenith of the party, whose organization failed.

But the Federalists' ideals ultimately succeeded. Hamilton's paradigm dominates US public life 200 years later: The United States is run by a strong central government with a powerful executive; a national financial system guards the value of the currency; a standing military has given the country strategic preeminence. Hamilton was so obsessed with paying off the federal debt that one can imagine him today leading the fight for a balanced-budget amendment. Notwithstanding their fondness for taxation (which they said was the cornerstone of fiscally responsible government), the Federalists are the obvious ancestors of modern conservatives.

But Hamilton and the other ``high'' Federalists shared two blind-spots that proved their undoing. The first was their distaste for the common people; the second was their contempt for day-to-day politics, the business of controlling a government through persuasion and compromise. They were thoroughgoing elitists, envisioning themselves as ``men apart, gentlemen who by birth, breeding, refinement, and independent circumstances were endowed with a special wideness of vision and were thus peculiarly fitted to dedicate talent and wisdom to disinterested public service,'' the authors write.

Hence John Adams and his advisers were unable to gauge the impact the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 would have on the citizenry of the young country. These bills, which inhibited immigration and made virtually any criticism of the federal government potentially unlawful, became rallying points for the Republicans, led by Jefferson. They also served to alienate the growing Irish and German immigrant communities, whom the Republicans assiduously courted.

The Federalists, who might have dominated national politics for decades, instead did ``one witless thing after another,'' as the authors put it, and treated party politics as a plot to fragment the nation rather than a method for arbitrating legitimate differences through popular elections.

Jefferson, with his uncanny combination of philosophical vision and tactical horse-sense, took advantage of the Federalist myopia and thereby created both the first populist administration and the first modern political party.

When Jefferson brought about his ``Revolution of 1800,'' only one great Federalist was left standing: John Marshall, made chief justice of the Supreme Court in one of John Adams's final presidential actions. Marshall ensured that at least one branch of the government would be shaped by the Federalists' strong centralizing ideals for many years to come. Those ideals and their history are well-preserved in this splendid book.

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